Natalie Toth grew up loving all things outdoors — animals, plants, bugs, you name it. It wasn’t until she took a couple of classes on geology that she found her calling: digging up dinosaur bones and prepping them for research. The paleontologist now works as Chief Fossil Preparator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a career that finds her searching for fossils out in the field and learning their secrets in the lab.
The road to uncovering fossils in the mountains of Colorado was anything but clearcut. Growing up in the Chicagoland area, Toth didn’t have much access to the mountainous landscapes she has now, nor the extensive knowledge of geology. She only knew of two things she required when it came to her ideal career: a job in science, and a job that would allow her to be outdoors.
With a career in paleontology, Toth has exactly that. During field season, she spends weeks camping onsite with her peers uncovering fossils. Once fossils are retrieved, they’re prepped and sent back to the labs where Toth spends her days readying them for research and to be featured in museum displays.
“Geology isn’t a straightforward path for a lot of people,” Toth tells Parentology. Common careers people associate with geology include the oil or gas industry and environmental consulting. For Toth, her position is more unique. She describes available jobs at museums as being very limited. Major museums will usually have one, maybe two, people that do what Toth does.
“You really have to be persistent and passionate in order to make it happen for yourself,” Toth says.
Toth found empowerment along the way by looking to multiple inspirational figures. Jane Goodall was a source of inspiration to the paleontologist growing up, particularly when following her fieldwork. “She was able to work with animals and respect the environment, and really just immerse herself in nature.”
There are also a handful of women in her field who Toth credits. Among them, Kay Behrensmeyer, who pioneered the study of fossil records in terrestrial ecosystems through taphonomy (the study of how organisms decay and become fossilized). Toth spent her undergrad reading Behrensmeyer’s papers, which fired her desire to pursue graduate work in taphonomy.
A Pursuit of Surprises
It’s no surprise a career based on uncovering things never before seen by humans keeps Toth on her toes. From her work out into the field to days in the lab, Toth has picked up several unique skills. Fieldwork can find her doing everything from deciphering car troubles to figuring out how to get a group of workers from point A to point B when roads are slippery or closed off. In the lab, there’s getting to know diverse tools and how best to use them for the job.
“Never thought I’d know so much about chemical reactions behind glue or baking soda,” she laughs. “Things I use on a daily basis.”
Toth’s work takes her across the Rocky Mountain region, where she spends seven to eight weeks backcountry camping while uncovering fossils. In the three labs she’s assigned to, Toth oversees workers and volunteers who clean and prep fossils.
Along with gratitude for the people she gets to work with, both past and present, Toth says her favorite part of the job is field season. She can recall the details of each trip, from the fossils recovered to the people she worked alongside.
She describes her ongoing list of projects as neverending. “We have no shortage of exciting projects at any given moment.”
To her, the most rewarding aspect of the job is seeing fossils go from first being exposed in the ground, collected, then sent back to museums. The journey doesn’t stop there — Toth then preps and stabilizes the fossils so they can be integrated into museum displays.
On her current roster of exciting projects? A meat-eating dinosaur from Madagascar, bones from a new type of horned dinosaur (similar to Triceratops, but not quite), and turtles.
For those thinking about emulating Toth’s career journey, she advises harvesting personal passions. “Let your passion shine,” she says. “Continue to pursue it. Even if there are people — bullies, or people who say you can’t — you gotta just keep your head up and keep doing it. You know that if you’re passionate and keep working on it, it’ll happen for you.”
About Redefining Rosie
This profile on Natalie Toth, paleontologist from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is a part of our Redefining Rosie: Cool Women, Uncommon Jobs.
Parentology created this series to celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. It features articles highlighting remarkable women in the workforce around the world — and in outer space. Check out our other profiles in the Redefining Rosie hub.